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2011 customer service trends: The mobile revolution

The TSIA’s John Ragsdale digs into one of the biggest trends in customer service in the coming year -- mobile enablement -- with advice and some historical perspective.

I’m back this month to talk about the last of the four major trends driving support services this year. Of the 24 cross-discipline categories of technology covered by the TSIA 2010 Member Technology Survey, the No. 1 spending area was mobile enablement, with 34% of members having approved budget for increased mobility in 2010-11.

Enterprise application vendors began touting mobile capabilities a decade ago. The user interfaces (UIs) were clunky and the functionality thin, but it was true innovation to have sales and service employees suddenly able to complete transactions in real time from their cars or at customer sites. Many analysts, including this one, touted mobile access to enterprise content as “the next big thing.” But years passed with little adoption and zero reference customers.

Oh, how times have changed. Mobile access to content and even native applications for mobile devices with rich UIs are now available from many vendors, and customer interest and adoption is finally reaching critical mass. With vendors spending big development budgets on mobile applications for 10 years or more, what drivers finally pushed consumer and enterprise customers to jump on board? Three significant drivers are behind today’s mobile revolution:

•         Device maturity. The single biggest challenge preventing enterprises from adopting early mobile tools was device maturity. Today’s devices, such as RIM’s BlackBerry and Apple’s iPhone, have provided more stable development environments with application support regardless of device model or operating-system version.

•         Mass adoption of smartphones. For many years, deciding on Palm, Windows CE or “lowest common denominator” WAP applications meant supplying new devices for users, as no single company owned the major market share for enterprise smartphones, and consumer adoption was minimal. This has changed dramatically, with business users adopting the BlackBerry en masse and Apple’s phenomenal success with the iPhone putting smartphones in the hands of millions of consumers -- adoption higher than even Apple anticipated.

•         Demand for 24/7 information access. The mass adoption of smartphones, along with younger workers entering the workplace, has created a demand for instant access to information anytime from anywhere. Employees and customers now demand 24/7 access to information from their fingertips.

Knowledge management (KM) is one of the first areas of support mobility impacts. Companies have spent a decade or more amassing critical information in a central repository and are now looking for ways to provide this knowledge to users 24/7, from any location around the globe. Providing ubiquitous mobile access offers business value through:

•         Right-time access. Mobile access to content ensures employees always have the most current and accurate information, even when they are away from their desks or at a customer site, streamlining problem identification or project execution.

•         Highly usable interfaces. As early adopters of smartphones know, standard HTML websites are not always easy to navigate with tiny screens, so having a Web interface isn’t enough. Now knowledge management and intelligent search vendors are creating native applications for smartphones, giving more features and flexibility to users in mobile mode.

•         Self-service success. Knowledge anywhere isn’t just about employees. Customers today also expect easier access to content, including the ability to search self-service knowledge bases and participate in online customer communities anytime, from anywhere. Making content easier for customers to consume encourages self-service and can reduce overall support costs.

After interviewing dozens of technology vendors for a research series on mobility in service, it is clear that almost all vendors in the KM industry have a mobile strategy, and most have already delivered some type of mobile enablement. It is important to understand exactly how mobility is delivered, as early solutions have less flexibility than more mature approaches. In general, I identified three phases of sophistication regarding mobile enablement of KM and search technology:

•         Phase 1: Browser support. Since all vendors offer a Web client for their applications, the first phase of mobile enablement is supporting the browsers used by smartphones. The usual supported list includes Apple Safari, the BlackBerry browser, Google Chrome, Microsoft Internet Explorer Mobile and Opera Mini. The downside to this approach is that users are accessing Web pages designed for full-size monitors with a tiny smartphone screen, so usability is an issue. Also, some parts of the standard Web application may not work in all browsers, such as Apple’s lack of support for Adobe’s Flash. IPhone and iPad users will not be able to see Flash-based elements such as video tutorials, diagrams and some reporting functions.

•         Phase 2: Mobile-specific UIs. The next phase of sophistication is designing Web applications specifically for each mobile browser. This usually means introducing a slimmed-down version of the regular Web application sized to fit on a smartphone screen with a minimum of scrolling and using only controls and widgets supported by each browser. This is definitely a step forward in UI design, with much better usability. However, note that early versions of mobile-specific UIs may have very few features, with additional features coming in each release. Before going this route, be sure all features required by employees and customers are available or are on a near-term roadmap.

•         Phase 3: Native applications. The most sophisticated level of mobile enablement includes native applications, such as iPhone applications available from Apple’s App Store, which have been tested and approved by the device manufacturer. Not only do these applications offer the highest level of usability, they allow integration with other device applications. For example, Coveo’s mobile interface for the company’s Customer Information Access Solutions allows you to take action on items in a list of search returns, such as reply to an email or add a comment to a incident.

Like any hot technology trend, when investing in mobile enablement it is important to prioritize projects based on potential return on investment, not “cool” factor. Consider these factors when designing your mobile strategy:

•         Start by surveying. Be sure you have survey data to understand what mobile devices your customers use and what use cases for information access (self-service, incident management, product roadmap) they need the most. This will help you decide what devices to support and also what functionality to enable first.

•         Balance employee and customer-facing initiatives. Don’t focus solely on mobile enablement for customers or employees -- create both in incremental steps. If your current knowledge management and search vendors do not offer mobile versions, work with them to prioritize what features you need first.

•         Go best of breed. As mobile KM and search vendors begin releasing mobile versions, companies with homegrown platforms wind up even further behind the industry. Wean yourself away from homegrown tools and adopt best-of-breed technology that offers support for emerging technologies and platforms at an accelerated pace.

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